Am I “a reader”? It depends.

A study has shown that 43% of Gen Z and millennials in the US don’t consider themselves ‘readers’. However, these people apparently read quite a lot. The article suggests that these people don’t consider the ‘reading’ they do to count, raising questions over the definition of the term. 

Wikipedia defines reading as “the process of taking in the sense or meaning of letters, symbols, etc., especially by sight or touch”. It’s a broad definition, inclusive of brail. Remove the word “especially”, however, and it leaves no room for audiobooks. 

Is that intentional? According to one 2021 source, over a quarter of us in the UK listen to audiobooks every single week. Literary critic Harold Bloom would not be a fan of this. He claims hearing a story aloud is not the same as reading because… something about the different parts of the ear? Cognitive processes? I’m not too sure. Thankfully, I don’t have to dismiss this, because author Neil Gaiman already has, arguing this view is “snobbery and foolishness” and even that sometimes hearing a book aloud can be a more insightful experience than looking at the words yourself. 

A common argument in favour of audiobooks is that you still have to use your imagination. What, then, of comics? Graphic novels, manga, etc., have pictures there on the page, seemingly removing the need for your mind’s eye. But what would we call consuming these media, if not reading? Does the imagination of the images moving, or the sound of the characters voices, not count? There must be a distinction between comic books and television – is this not it? 

Definitions of reading that stretch to include audiobooks often exclude comic books, and vice versa.

“It seems many disagree over whether the importance lies in imagination or in the parsing of text into your mind, but a definition inclusive of both is unappealingly broad”

It seems many disagree over whether the importance lies in imagination or in the parsing of text into your mind, but a definition inclusive of both is unappealingly broad. 

I love podcasts. I occasionally listen to fictional narrative podcasts. These are, for all intents and purposes, episodic audio novels. Yet I have never heard any argument that they should be considered reading. Personally, my preference would be that audiobooks were acknowledged as different but equal. Where a person can say “I think you’d really love The Handmaid’s Tale, I listened to it all in like two days!” and not worry about being looked down on for their choice of verb. And people who read with their eyes or hands don’t consider themselves better than those who prefer to use their ears. 

Similarly, I think there is an issue with people looking down on comic books (and by extension, readers of comic books). I do believe that the comic book as a medium is subject to prejudice based on both the prevalence of and an infantile (and entirely unfounded) perception of, the superhero genre; as soon as you look away from the West (or indeed the late 20th century) there is rich history of comic books, especially of chitrakatha and manhua. I think much of the debate around whether comics count as reading would not be raised when discussing a novelisation of a comic book story in comparison to a traditional illustrated folklore text, because I genuinely suspect most people taking issue with the format are really being snobbish about the content. 

If this disparity is not due to whether different mediums count as reading, perhaps it’s how much reading you have to do before you qualify for the moniker. I would consider myself a reader now, but at the early stages of getting back into it, currently pacing myself at one book per month. Imagine my dismay upon reading an article that described the benefits of reading by talking about getting through a book a week. The article didn’t explicitly tell me I wasn’t allowed to call myself a reader, but it certainly made me feel undeserving. 

““Reader”, like all labels, has certain connotations to certain people”

“Reader”, like all labels, has certain connotations to certain people. It’s like brands calling themselves “plant-based” because of bad press around the word “vegan”. We can self-identify as readers if we want to. But do we want to? What image does that conjure up in the minds of people we talk to? What assumptions would it cause people to make about us, and our social lives? 

There’s also something to be said about the rebellious nature of youth. Our elders put so much weight on reading, likely disparaging us for not partaking frequently enough. We spend entire childhoods fighting back, wanting to watch TV, or play video games. Why would we want to admit they were right now? Ultimately, I don’t think any of this matters. If older generations want to point at statistics showing we aren’t “readers”, let them. We know that we read. And we read what we want and how we want, whether it’s pictures of superheroes or sound waves through headphones. Whether I call myself a reader or not doesn’t change the fact that, given any amount of free time, a book (comic, audio, or otherwise) is amongst the first things I reach for. 


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